Living Together Before Marriage Still Illegal In 4 U.S. States

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Historically, cohabitation (i.e., the act of an unmarried romantic couple living together) has been rare. In the modern world, however, it has almost become a precursor to marriage. In fact, nearly 60% of married U.S. adults now report that they shared a residence with their partner before tying the knot [1]. Coinciding with the rapid rise in cohabitation has been an increase in acceptance of this practice. Few people refer to it by derogatory names any more, such as “shacking up” and “living in sin,” and parents no longer disown their children who choose to cohabitate. In light of these dramatic social changes, you may be surprised to learn that cohabitation is technically still illegal in 4 U.S. states.

As it currently stands, Mississippi, Michigan, Florida, and Virginia currently have laws on the books banning cohabitation. For instance, in Virginia, it is a misdemeanor for “any persons, not married to each other, [to] lewdly and lasciviously associate and cohabit together” and is punishable by up to a $500 fine for the first offense (a second conviction could potentially land you up to a year in the slammer and a $2,500 fine). The legal language and penalties are similar in the other mentioned states, except Mississippi, where the law bans “unlawful cohabitation” in which a man and women live together and it can be proven that they had “habitual sexual intercourse.”  

You might be thinking, “but surely these laws are no longer enforced, right?” Not necessarily. It is rare, but you can still find relatively recent examples. For instance, in 2005, Michigan’s cohabitation law was used by a court to restrict visitation rights for a divorced father who was living with a woman who was not the mother of his children. And in the 1990s, the Virginia law was used in an attempt to revoke a woman’s daycare license after it was discovered that she was in a cohabitating relationship.

So if cohabitation has basically become a normative behavior, why are these laws still on the books in some states? We cannot say for sure, but it is likely because some politicians see it as a way of maintaining the perceived superiority of marriage over other relationship states. In addition, some politicians are probably unwilling to try and repeal cohabitation laws at the risk of alienating “family values” voters.

Regardless of the reason, it is high time that these laws were repealed once and for all because there is no rational or scientific basis for discriminating against cohabiting partners. For instance, although it is often argued that cohabitation is detrimental to couples who go on to marry, this is not necessarily the case. Research has found that engaged couples are equally likely to have long-term marriages (i.e., marriages that last at least 15 years) regardless of whether the partners live together first.1 In addition, although it is often argued that marriage offers unique health benefits to the partners involved, recent research has found that having any type of long-term relationship (regardless of whether the couple is married or just living together) is linked to better health outcomes than being single [2].

Fortunately, lawmakers in Virginia are currently contemplating repeal, which would give new meaning to the state's travel slogan “Virginia is for lovers.” But let’s hope that the other three states join suit soon because it’s time for cohabitation laws to “shack up” with all of the other outdated sex laws in the dustbins of history.

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[1] Copen, C. E., Daniels, K., Vespa, J., Mosher, W. D. (2012). First marriages in the United States: Data from the 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth. National Health Statistics Reports, 49, 1-22.

[2] Musick, K., & Bumpass, L. (2012). Reexamining the case for marriage: Union formation and changes in well‐being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 1-18.

Image Source: Cult Gigolo on Flickr

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